Introducing spirituality to young people in a secular world

Introducing spirituality to young people in a secular world
Mindful Living

In my last article we explored the lack of spiritual consciousness in modern secular society and the capacity of meditation as a universal practice to awaken and deepen personal spiritual experience, whether such experience finds expression in secular or religious terms.

This way of looking at spirituality is very different to the traditional understanding in conservative societies which spoke of religion instead of spirituality and which saw religion in terms of strict adherence to a set of beliefs. Although often conflated, faith and belief are very different things. As I see it, the concepts of faith and spirituality have more to offer modern society than the concepts of belief and religion. Certainly the former must precede the latter. Please don’t misunderstand me – I have profound respect for religious belief but I think if we truly want to help young people to explore how to live well, to tease out what we mean by mindful living, then the starting point in modern secular society must be on personal spiritual experience rather than religious belief.

Shy nature

Australian researcher Phil Daughtry observes that “given its inexplicit and shy nature” signs of the spiritual can easily be overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant by secular, mainstream culture. He argues that while young people are “least likely to be engaged with traditional forms of spiritual teaching yet ironically [they] are most likely to engage in an open, non-didactic conversation about spirituality and religion”. And so he cautions that an overzealous, too-certain, dogmatic religious approach may inhibit rather than enable tentative spiritual expression. Accordingly, whatever words we use to explore spirituality with those who do not identify meaningfully with any faith tradition, we must, initially at least, avoid the use of explicit religious language or theological terminology; instead, we must appeal to the innate desire to be live an authentic life.

A love of truth, a personal dedication to truth and a practical living out of life according to truth”

Whatever approach we take, it must be grounded in hope, and appeal to that ‘shy hope in the heart’ of every person. Our language and approach must be tentative and ambiguous, be comfortable with uncertainty and paradox and speak to the lived experience of those with whom we engage. Failure to engage effectively with young people will leave many without a meaningful way to name, recognise, and develop the sense of the sacred as an important orientation and way of being in the world.

Our education system, at least on paper, recognises the importance of spirituality in the development of the person. Section 9 of the Education Act 1998 requires all schools to “provide education to students which is appropriate to their abilities and needs and… promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students… in consultation with their parents, having regard to the characteristic spirit of the school”. In addition, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the body responsible for the development of curriculum, has issued Well-Being Guidelines for the Junior Cycle. These state that the multi-dimensional nature of wellbeing encompasses social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, environmental and physical wellbeing. In other words, it acknowledges spirituality as a vital component of wellbeing. However, the Department of Education and Science has done little to define what it understands by the term ‘spiritual development’ or how it should be evaluated. Indeed, it seems likely that it conflates spiritual development with religious instruction.

The Irish theologian Fr Dermot Lane has defined faith as “a love of truth, a personal dedication to truth and a practical living out of life according to truth”. I think that works very well as a definition of spirituality, especially if adapted to read “a search for truth, a personal dedication to truth and a practical living out of life according to truth”. Fr Lane goes on to say it is “An insight into the truth of God followed by a personal response to that insight which affects daily living”. The first sentence works very well even as a definition of spirituality in a secular context while the second sentence clarifies how that may be experienced in a religious tradition that believes in God.

Young people need support in finding their spiritual voice in ways that resonate with and are authentic to their lived experience. Fr Lane has also written that “The question of God for us today in the twenty-first century, as distinct from any other century, is about the possibility of experiencing God in the world.” Meditation has much to offer in this regard; research demonstrates that meditation has the capacity to awaken and nurture the spirituality of the person. It enables one to give metaphorical expression to personal spiritual experience. It can enable young people to test the validity of personal spiritual experience for themselves and lead to their incorporating such experience of spirituality within their own structures of meaning and those of the culture in which they live.


Because the language of meditation is silence, meditation is an ideal practice for engaging young people in a search for truth; as a daily practice it can assist them in the process of exploring their inner lives by providing space, opportunity, and validity for rich spiritual experience and mysteriously awakens that shy hope in the heart which is our innate spirituality. Parents would do well to consider the possibility of family meditation on a regular basis.